TOMS RIVER — Students and parents came to the defense of a history lesson by a middle school teacher who had his students lie on the floor and pick cotton while he acted like a slave driver.

The lesson is now under investigation by the school district. The teacher, who also is the mayor of Pine Beach, has apologized if the lesson about a difficult subject unintentionally harmed his students.

The Asbury Park Press and News 12 New Jersey reported that the Toms River Intermediate East history teacher made "whipping" and "cracking noises" during the lesson on Friday. The teacher, identified by Toms River school district spokesman Michael Kenny as Lawrence Cuneo, also kicked students, according to the reports.

Cuneo is also the mayor of Pine Beach, which is part of the Toms River school district.

"We were recently alerted by a Toms River Intermediate East student of an alleged incident that took place at the school regarding a lesson on slavery. Our district is undergoing a thorough investigation into this matter," Toms River school district spokesman Michael Kenny told Townsquare Media News in an email.

"It seems initially clear that there was no ill intent but that better judgment should have been used with regard to the alleged instructional methods, particularly as it pertains to recognizing the sensitivities of all students," Kenny said.

The incident was first discussed on social media, according to the Press.

Kenny would not disclose whether Cuneo remained on the job because it is a "confidential personnel issue that we cannot discuss."

Cuneo in an email said that the intent of this lesson was to show how "degrading and despicable the institution of slavery was in our history."

"Slavery existed within our country and the lessons learned, even if uncomfortable, need to be told. At no time was my intention to harm the sensitivities of any student. If this lesson did that, I apologize to those affected," Cuneo wrote.

When asked to give his own description of the lesson, Cuneo referred to a story in the Toms River Patch with students discussing the class.

Students and parents told Patch that descriptions of the activity are inaccurate and that the lesson was discussed beforehand and participation was voluntary. Former student Michele Barletto-Baldwin told Patch she recalled having the lesson when Cuneo was her teacher. She called the criticism "ridiculous."

Lisa Nuernberg told Patch her daughter was in the class said no one was kicked by Cuneo and the exercise did not promote racism.

Kenny said that the district's investigation is "keeping in mind that our curriculum has evolved to include more hands-on, authentic activities."

February is recognized as Black History Month.

Cuneo has been a teacher for 18 years and earns a salary of $72,103. He has been mayor of Pine Beach for three years.

Toms River Intermediate East had a student enrollment of 1,455 as of the 2017-18 school year, and the students are mostly white.

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